Care work has long been considered the work that makes all other work possible.
The term “care work” encompasses both paid and unpaid work. The International Labor Organization includes two overlapping activities in their definition of care work: direct, personal and relational activities, like caring for children or nursing someone who is ill, as well as indirect care, like cooking and cleaning.
Most of the care work done around the world is unpaid and done by women and girls, often from marginalized groups. The amount of time women spend doing unpaid caregiving in comparison to men has profound impacts on economic inequality across gender.
The undervalued nature of care work also has ramifications for paid care workers. Care work has already been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds. The number of these jobs, which tend to pay less than the median annual wage across all sectors, is expected to expand further as the elderly population in the United States grows.
Domestic workers are one particular category of care workers. Domestic workers, whether they are hired by an individual or through an agency, do a wide range of work, from cleaning to personal care. The common denominator is that their workplace is in their employer’s private home. Like all care work, the demographics of domestic workers is very gendered, analysis from the Economic Policy Institute shows.
Domestic work is also heavily racialized. Domestic workers are more likely than all other workers to be immigrants, and undocumented workers in the sector face additional vulnerabilities.
In the United States, domestic work is deeply entwined with the legacy of slavery. This legacy is why domestic workers, along with agricultural workers, were left out of the labor protections granted in the 1930s, including the collective bargaining protections of the National Labor Relations Act. This exclusion continued in various subsequent labor protections.
Domestic work is also borne out of the history of settler colonialism in the United States. Indigenous people worked during the colonial period as domestic servants, both as enslaved or waged laborers. Policies created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs institutionalized the practice. This was a part of the U.S. policy of assimilation – Indigenous girls were placed in boarding schools to learn about maintaining a household, and then placed in the homes of white settler colonial families as domestic workers.
The current realities of domestic workers reflect these racist histories. Domestic workers continue to be excluded from a variety of labor protections to this day. Working in private residences leaves domestic workers particularly vulnerable. Surveys done by the Institute for Policy Studies and National Domestic Workers Alliance have highlighted the lack of worker protections and potential for sexual harassment and abuse. This lack of protection goes hand in hand with the devaluation of domestic work. As the Economic Policy Institute shows, domestic workers face high poverty rates.
Groups like the National Domestic Worker Alliance have long organized and advocated to enshrine rights and benefits tailored to the unique challenges domestic workers face. Several cities and states have passed domestic worker bills of rights, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Kamala Harris have introduced a National Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in Congress.
Implementing worker protections and benefits is one crucial aspect of reducing inequalities in the care economy. So too is investment in care. A first of its kind study from the UCLA Labor Center sheds light on the California households that employ domestic workers, which total as many as 2 million, 44 percent of which are low-income.
Poor pay is also prevalent in California, UCLA found. Four in ten employees are paid a low wage, defined as less than two-thirds the full-time median wage, which at the time of the study was $13.83 an hour. Seventeen percent were paid below the minimum wage. One in five moderate and high-income households paid a low wage despite being able to pay more, while a third of low-income households paid higher wages.
Some states have implemented programs to begin to offset the costs of providing care. In Hawaii, the Kupuna Caregivers Program provides financial assistance to employed caregivers to offset the cost of care so they can remain in the workforce. Washington has created a social insurance program to help cover the costs of elder care. The National Academy of Social Insurance has laid out a menu of options for states building towards universal family care. Modeling from the International Trade Union Confederation also shows that investments in the care economy is a more gender equitable way to stimulate employment and economic growth.
MORE INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES RESOURCES ON THE CARE ECONOMY
Video: Black Immigrant Domestic Workers in the Time of Covid-19, Co-produced with the National Domestic Workers Alliance